Here’s a fairly common musical strategy: take one idea, one that manifests itself as a steady, regular, and consonant musical flow, and set against it a more irregular, dissonant, contrasting piece of music; overall, of course, the resulting piece expresses tension, frustration, disagreement, etc. For whatever reason, composers will often use melodic and harmonic figures characteristic of the Baroque to express that first quality – probably because such music is often described as being “pure” music, free of programmatic content and expressive of elegant, even mathematical, relations among the notes.
What’s curious is the way nominally emotionally-neutral can come to be powerfully emotionally expressive, in such a context. Four examples to illustrate:
In “Jane Fakes a Hug,” the Wrens take a Bach-like chordal sequence and set against it an increasingly agitated series of countervailing gestures, culminating in a complete breakdown of the sequence into random noise. (Cleverly, though, they’ve prepared us for that noise by having a blurping, not-quite-rhythmic noise in the background throughout the song.) The lyrics, of course, are about the breakup of a marriage in suburbia (as, it would seem, is most of the Secaucus album). In that context, the Baroque figure reads as a sort of inevitably, a progress that has an impetus of its own, much as the narrator imagines his frustration and desperation leading him first to flirtation, then into an affair, driving the breakup of a failing marriage.
In many ways, the Wrens track is a translation into personal, everyday life of the high-minded (and rather heavy-handed) philosophical issues Charles Ives explored in his well-known piece “The Unanswered Question.” Here, the strings play an imperturbable, tonic sequence (reminiscent of the well-known Pachelbel canon in D), against which the trumpet “asks” its repeated “question,” in response to which the flute quartet becomes increasingly agitated (and discordant). (One route from Ives’ ostensibly philosophic milieu to the Wrens’ emotional and sexual realm might look at the bizarre, macho way Ives approached discord: he once infamously rebuked an audience for their reaction to one of his pieces, challenging them to “stand up and take dissonance like a man.” This isn’t the space to analyze that sort of peculiar and projected anxiety…)
Speaking of that Pachelbel canon, Brian Eno and Gavin Bryars notoriously deconstructed that piece by taking bits and pieces of the score and altering it in various ways. The third and final movement (entitled “Brutal Ardour“: the titles, Eno’s notes inform us, come from “the charmingly inaccurate translation of the French cover notes for the Erato recording of the piece made by the orchestra of Jean Francois Pailliard”) is altered by having “each player [play] a sequence of notes related to those of the other players, but [whose] sequences are of different lengths so that the original relationships [among the notes] break down.” Curious that even though Eno’s piece is more cerebral and less expresses tension among different parts than simply manifesting the tension through its alteration of the original piece, the notion of “relationships break[ing] down” is present here, too. (In this context, it’s worth noting that the mistranslated titles may have seemed “charming” to Eno in their inaccuracy in part because of their sexual and scatalogical implications: the other two movements are called “Fullness of Wind” and “French Catalogues.”)
Finally, a rather more obscure piece than any of these: “In the Autumn of My Madness,” the third section of Procol Harum’s “In Held ‘Twas in I” (one of the first side-long prog-rock epics – originally from their second album, 1968’s Shine On Brightly, although I’ve excerpted the orchestrated version from their 1972 recording with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Chorus), in which a harmonically and rhythmically restless verse (along with the band’s typically Baroque-influenced bass lines) appears to resolve its tension in a very Baroque organ figure between verses. That resolution, however, is illusory: the organ modulates upward, step by step, seemingly without end, as trumpets play sirens and random noises erupt from the orchestra. (I used the orchestral version for two reasons: I like Gary Brooker’s vocal much better than the studio recording’s vocal – Matthew Fisher? – and the imitation trumpet-based sirens are less cheesy than the field-recording sirens on the original.) Once again, the juxtaposition of an orderly Baroque figure is contrasted with chaotic material, the chaos being magnified by the contrast – and in this case, with the added complication that even the apparent order spirals into chaos, modulating and modulating in an Escher-like series that has no obvious endpoint (in fact, the band rises through more than an octave before the figure is abruptly cut off).
The Wrens “Jane Fakes a Hug”
Charles Ives “The Unanswered Question” (Orpheus Chamber Orchestra)
Brian Eno “Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel: (iii) Brutal Ardour” (Gavin Bryars, the Cockpit Ensemble)
Procol Harum “In the Autumn of My Madness” from “In Held ‘Twas in I” (with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Chorus)